Living with credit

Credit, in Lew of cash?

Fred Williams

Credit cards, along with debit cards and other forms of plastic, have been waiting for the demise of their low-tech, ragged and somewhat grubby ancestor, paper currency.

Lew's signature from a White House documentNow the end may finally be near. Not because of any breakthrough with electronic wallets or smartphone payment wizardry, which is trying to become the new way of getting you through checkout lines. No, the coup de grace may come from simple embarrassment.

Because of vigorous reporting, including from the investigative handwriting team at New York magazine, the flaw of the prospective new Secretary of the Treasury, Jacob “Jake” Lew, has been exposed.  His handwriting — specifically his signature — is a loopy scribble, like a parody of those handwriting exercises that people used to have to perform in grade school.

This would not matter if Lew were in line to head the Agriculture Department. But the Treasury secretary’s signature goes on the bills that we carry around in our wallets and hand over to cashiers, slip into holiday cards, bail friends out of jail with and, if old movies can be believed, discreetly palm off to the maitre d’ at posh restaurants.

It has been said that a fiat currency depends on trust — its value comes from the faith we have in the issuer. How much faith can you have in a note signed with something that looks like, as New York reported, the hairdo of Peanuts comic strip character Sally Brown?  Most people have an illegible scrawl for a signature, but Lew’s loops are on a different level.  Their lack of resemblance to anything in the alphabet suggests a playful questioning of the very concept of a signature. Others see the icing swirl on a Hostess (R)(and RIP) Cupcake, or a stressed-out Slinky. Is that the proper tone for legal tender?

Artist's illustration of what a loopy Lew signature would look like on legal tender, with a current Tim Geithner-signed bill below

Artist’s illustration of what a loopy Lew signature would look like on legal tender, with a current Tim Geithner-signed bill below

Moshe Orenbuch, an analyst at Credit Suisse who follows the banking industry, said in an email that Lew-signed bills might become keepsakes, and people might spend more using their credit cards. So far he hasn’t revised his estimates for card issuers’ performance in 2013, but much remains to play out. Scribblegate is in its early stages.

Will the loops trip up Senate confirmation hearings? Or will Secretary Lew bear down and produce something more fitting for a global reserve currency than for the artwork you find hanging on refrigerators?

That is what current Treasury head Tim Geithner did He had a normal-looking signature, but he came up with a more serious, even legible one for use on the dollar. Lew, in his current job as White House chief of staff, has already put his loopy signature on some pretty important papers, which is where we got it for use in this illustration. We’ll just have to see if the prospect of a cabinet post straightens him out.

Update: In a concession to the good-penmanship caucus, President Barack Obama pledged at Lew’s nomination ceremony that the nominee will make at least one letter of his signature legible, in order to avoid debasing the currency.

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